COVID-19 and pathways to city and neighbourhood resiliency in Toronto’s social and community services
As cities have accounted for 95 percent of COVID‑19 cases around the world, the United Nations regards resilient cities as critical to the global recovery from the pandemic (UNHabitat, 2020). Resiliency refers to the capacity of systems, communities and individuals to survive, adapt, and/or transform in response to dangerous and disruptive events such as natural disasters, economic crises, demographic changes, health epidemics and others (Figuereido, Honiden and Schumann, 2018). This study employs geospatial data mapping and analysis, archival and interview research techniques, to explore city and neighbourhood-level understandings and pathways to urban resiliency in the face of the pandemic in the Municipality of Toronto.
At the city level, the study will examine how resiliency was understood by municipal officials responsible for social and community services prior to the declaration of a global pandemic, how units responsible for those functions adjusted their structures, policies, programs and services in response to the pandemic, and whether the responses reflected a form of equilibrist or evolutionary resilience (Béné, Newsham, Davies, Ulrichs and Godfrey-Wood, 2014; Meerow, Newell and Stults, 2016). Equilibrist resilience refers to resisting (surviving) the disturbance and returning to the previous state following the crisis or challenge. Evolutionary resilience refers to transition and transformation of structures and practises following the disturbance (Nunes, Pinheiro and Tomé, 2019). In sum, which, if any, aspects of municipal social and community service operations were permanently transformed as a result of the health crisis?
Toronto is a city of diverse neighbourhoods that vary in terms of their socio-economic profiles and experiences with the pandemic. In general, case counts and case rates (per 100,000 population) have been higher in the city’s lower income, high density neighbourhoods with large racialized populations. Racialized Torontonians are more likely to live in poverty and poor housing, be employed in precarious work, encounter difficulties getting nutritious food and be victims of crime and discrimination (Cheung, 2020). Since intra-urban disparities could influence ideas and pathways to resiliency, a second principal objective of this study is to understand how neighbourhood social and community service agencies and associations adapted to the crisis. Did they return to their pre-pandemic states, or did they evolve into a new state? These questions will be explored in two neighbourhoods with similar socio-economic profiles and vulnerabilities, but different experiences with COVID. While one neighbourhood has experienced some of the highest case rates and fatalities in the city, case rates and fatalities in the second neighbourhood are considerably lower (City of Toronto, n.d; 2018a; 2018b). This case selection strategy has the potential to illuminate whether neighbourhood conceptions and pathways to resiliency were related to health outcomes on the ground.
Resiliency has been widely applied in the material, biomedicine and ecological sciences to topics related to natural disasters and risk management; hazards; climate change adaptation; energy systems; planning; and international development. This study will support academic, practitioner and community knowledge about conceptions and pathways to resiliency in the understudied field of social and community services. It promotes the sharing of experiences and practices across cities and neighbourhoods in Canada and abroad. The micro-urban lens answers the Canadian Urban Institute’s call for neighbourhood data to inform strategies that mitigate impacts and build resilience in communities at higher risk (Canadian Urban Institute, n.d.).